by Carly Hayward

The sensitivity reader is somewhat of a newcomer in the publishing industry. They are the person you call when you need to step outside of your comfort zone in your manuscript, and when you want to ensure characters are authentic and well-rounded.

Fiction writers are often encouraged to write about things they don’t know. If you write only your experiences, it becomes a memoir, not a work of fiction. When you stick to your own life, things can get very boring. You don’t want to write an entire book about a writer who sits in bed all day with their laptop next to them, trying to write a book about a writer. Your writing can get really meta, really quickly.

So, instead of solely mining your own life for inspiration, you need to get creative, as every writer should. You open your mind to other possibilities, scenarios, and characters that are outside your own experience. But here is where it gets messy: as much as you try to create new characters, it is inevitable that your unconscious background will apply traits to them, even if you don’t know if these traits are real or stereotype. As perceptive and sensitive as you try to be, it is hard to fully understand the cultures surrounding people of different races, religions, disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, etc. unless you fully immerse yourself in that culture for an extended period of time.

Additionally, you want to be sure your characters don’t come across as one-dimensional or cliché. They should be round, complex, and genuine. Your characters should be as diverse as the world we live in. But you also don’t want your diverse cast to seem gratuitous. Many authors are aware that books need diversity, but throwing diverse characters in a book and calling it representation is problematic as well. You want your three-dimensional characters to be true to the story and true to the people they represent.

With all of that in mind, you next need to consider all of the factors, and figure out what to do to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters. First of all, you should try your best. Do a lot of research, talk to people, and put yourself out there. As cliché as it sounds, expand your horizons to open yourself up to new character possibilities. Try to supersede the preconceived notions you may have. Once you’ve done this and created your character, you should look into finding a sensitivity reader who fits your needs.

Do you have a Native American character and want to make sure they don’t come across as the typical spiritual advisor? Or maybe you have a black character who you’ve intentionally avoided stereotypes with. In both cases, you may go too far in the other direction. These characters won’t be realistic because you have applied your own ethnic background to them that isn’t true to their culture. In that sense, you’re essentially taking a white character and changing the color of their skin. While you aren’t stereotyping your character, you are still doing them a disservice by not taking their culture into account. A sensitivity reader is the person who will help you identify where your characters are falling flat or reading as something they are not meant to be.

Sensitivity readers are available in all shapes and sizes. They can come from every part of the LGBTQ spectrum. A sensitivity reader will help you develop a rounded main character who understands (for example) the pressures, fears, and enjoyment of being gay, but who is still full of complexities, like every other person.

"Your characters should be as diverse as the world we live in."

Beyond race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, et al., you can find sensitivity readers for disabled characters. I’m going to talk about this in depth because, as a disabled person, I have served as a sensitivity reader. People like to believe that they can imagine the emotional baggage and physical limitations that disabled people deal with every day, but often they are misguided. It is easy to imagine that, if you were in your disabled character’s shoes, you wouldn’t be able to handle it, or that death would be better. But being disabled just forces you to adapt, and forces your characters to find creative ways to do what they want to do. And while it can be difficult, it doesn’t always make you weak. On the flip side, a disability doesn’t always make you spiritually strong. Your character can still be whiny or wise or nasty or kind. They may handle their disabilities like a champ, but be unable to handle disappointing their mentor. Alternatively, another character may find their disease completely debilitating, overwhelming their senses and causing them to make a catastrophic decision. No one is perfect, and no one is just one thing.

Some are concerned that sensitivity readers amount to glorified censors, limiting the vision of writers. But a good sensitivity reader doesn’t put boundaries on your writing; they instead help you expand your creativity, showing you the potential of your characters. The sensitivity reader helps you make authentic characters who can speak to your readers in more meaningful ways.

"Showing readers characters they can relate to, characters that children can look up to, and characters that can give hope to readers is vital."

While sensitivity readers help expand the limitations of writers, they are no replacement for diverse authors. We Need Diverse Books is an important movement bringing attention to the fact that the majority of published authors are straight white males and the majority of published books have straight white main characters. To have true diversity in books, we need diverse publishers and writers. Showing readers characters they can relate to, characters that children can look up to, and characters that can give hope to readers is vital.

Sensitivity readers allow you to develop characters that aren’t completely consumed by one aspect of their being. People are complex and cannot be defined by one characteristic, and a good character, even a side character, is the same way.

  • To learn more about We Need Diverse Books here

  • To learn more about sensitivity readers here

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